CHAPTER 21. GENERAL DECAEN.
Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen was born at Caen, the ancient and picturesque capital of Normandy, on April 13th, 1769. Left an orphan at the age of twelve, his education was superintended by a friend of his father, who had been a public official. At the end of his schooldays he studied law under an advocate of local celebrity, M. Lasseret. Though his juristic training was not prolonged, the discipline of the office gave a certain bent to his mind, a certain lawyer-like strictness and method to his mode of handling affairs, that remained characteristic during his military career, and was exceedingly useful to him while he governed Ile-de-France. Very often in perusing his Memoires* the reader perceives traces of the lawyer in the language of the soldier. (* The Memoires et Journaux du General Decaen were prepared for publication by himself, and the portion up to the commencement of his governorship has been printed, with notes and maps, by Colonel Ernest Picard, Chief of the Historical Section of the Staff of the French Army (2 volumes Paris 1910). Colonel Picard informed me that he did not intend to print the remainder, thinking that the ground was sufficiently covered by Professor Henri Prentout's admirable book L'Ile de France sous Decaen. I have, therefore, had the section relating to Flinders transcribed from the manuscript, and used it freely for this book.) Thus, when during the campaign of the Rhine he found that his superior officer, General Jourdan, was taking about with him as his aide-de-camp a lady in military attire, Decaen, with a solemnity that seems a little un-French under the circumstances, condemned the breach of the regulations as conduct "which was not that of a father of a family, a legislator and a general-in-chief." As for the lady, "les charmes de cette maussade creature" merely evoked his scorn. It does not appear that Jourdan's escapade produced any ill effects in a military sense, but it was against the regulations, and Decaen was as yet as much lawyer as soldier.
When the revolutionary wars broke out, and France was ringed round by a coalition of enemies, the voice of "la patrie en danger" rang in the ears of the young student like a call from the skies. He was twenty-two years of age when two deputies of the Legislative Assembly came down to Caen and made an appeal to the manhood of the country to fly to arms. Decaen, fuming with patriotic indignation, threw down his quill, pitched his calf-bound tomes on to their shelf, and was the first to inscribe his name upon the register of the fourth battalion of the regiment of Calvados, an artillery corps. He was almost immediately despatched to Mayence on the Rhine, where Kleber (who was afterwards to serve with distinction under Bonaparte in Egypt) hard pressed by the Prussians, withdrew the French troops into the city (March, 1793) and prepared to sustain a siege.
Decaen rose rapidly, by reason not merely of his bull-dog courage and stubborn tenacity, but also of his intelligence and integrity. He received his "baptism of fire" in an engagement in April, when Kleber sent a detachment to chase a Prussian outpost from a neighbouring village and to collect whatever forage and provisions might be obtained. He was honest enough to confess - and his own oft-proved bravery enabled him to do so unashamed - that, when he first found the bullets falling about him, he was for a moment afraid. "I believe," he wrote, "that there are few men, however courageous they may be, who do not experience a chill, and even a feeling of fear, when for the first time they hear around them the whistling of shot, and above all when they first see the field strewn with killed and wounded comrades."* (* Memoires 1 13.) But he was a sergeant-major by this time, and remembered that it was his duty to set an example; so, screwing up his courage to the sticking-place by an effort of will, and saying to himself that it was not for a soldier of France to quail before a ball, he deliberately wheeled his horse to the front of a position where a regiment was being shaken by the enemy's artillery fire, and by his very audacity stiffened the wavering troops and saved the situation.
After the capitulation of Mayence in July, 1793, Decaen fought with distinction in the war in La Vendee. In this cruel campaign he displayed unusual qualities as a soldier, and attained the rank of adjutant-general. Kleber gave him a command calling for exceptional nerve, with the comment, "It is the most dangerous position, and I thought it worthy of your courage." It was Decaen, according to his own account, who devised the plan of sending out a number of mobile columns to strike at the rebels swiftly and unexpectedly. But though he was succeeding in a military sense, these operations against Frenchmen, while there were foreign foes to fight beyond the frontiers, were thoroughly distasteful to him. The more he saw of the war in La Vendee, and the more terribly the thumb of the national power pressed upon the throat of the rebellion, the more he hated the service. It was at his own solicitation, therefore, that he was transferred to the army of the Rhine in January, 1795.
Here he served under the ablest general, saving only Bonaparte himself, whom the wars of the Revolution produced to win glory for French arms, Jean Victor Moreau. His bravery and capacity continued to win him advancement. Moreau promoted him to the command of a brigade, and presented him with a sword of honour for his masterly conduct of a retreat through the Black Forest, when, in command of the rear-guard, he fought the Austrians every mile of the road to the Rhine.